Seeing Horror, Imagining the Horrible

by Troy Bordun Volume 19, Issue 9 / September 2015 25 minutes (6030 words)

Catherine Breillat is often criticized and theorized as an auteur of pornography. What is frequently missed in reviews and scholarship is her recourse to the horror genre. However, it is not pornography alone in which Breillat finds a genre to appropriate and twist to transmit her message about the social and cultural forces which shape feminine sexuality, horror is also relevant to articulate this truth, and most profoundly in Fat Girl (2001).

In the first section, I provide a brief synopsis of the film. In the second section, I turn to horror and theorize why this genre has significance for Fat Girl and the means Breillat uses to break with the classical definitions of it articulated by Tanya Modleski. To accomplish this, I demonstrate the link between psychoanalytic interpretations of film and spectatorship and the haptic cinematic experience as expressed by Lisa Coulthard and others. A haptic film experience is here defined as an implacable and imprecise sensorial experience of sounds and images, a kind of touching with one’s eyes and ears – in other words, an experience prior to (recognized) cognition. 1 In making this connection, I argue Breillat is not a filmmaker of the horror genre, but a filmmaker of the horrible.

My work raises the larger problem of genre classifications by theorists, critics, and spectators. Through Breillat’s films I aim to show how recourse to a stable genre misses the director’s social and political message and, further, the actual experience of spectators who collect and recollect the images and sounds to produce a film that matters for them. 2 It has been agreed upon by theorists that New Extreme Cinema does not constitute a genre. Breillat, I argue, recognizes the codes of horror only to wrench the spectator away from their expectations of viewing films with the coordinates of genre to guide their experience. With this technique of appropriating genre, Breillat communicates the truth about the unequal (sexual) relations between sexes under patriarchy, and importantly, the shame women feel regarding their sexuality and desires.

Fat Girl Synopsis

While on a family vacation in Italy, 15-year-old Elena (Roxane Mesquida) seduces college-aged Fernando (Libero de Rienzo) at a picturesque café patio after her and 12-year-old sister Anaïs (Anaïs Reboux) bet on who could get a guy first. The older and more attractive, we should have immediately guessed, will win this contest with ease over the younger and less attractive. We discover, however, that Elena, during the long scene in which the older boy practices his charm and sophistry, is a virgin, and a conflicted one at that; she is falling in love with Fernando and yet a (Catholic) purity has been engrained. “[V]irginity belongs to society,” Breillat asserts (“Director Interview”). Anaïs recognizes this and seals her own fate by stating in the opening sequence, “Personally, I want my first time to be with a boy I don’t love.” Elena, on the other hand, wants to give her body to the man she loves. Initially, Fat Girl has all the components of a teen melodrama.

Late in the night, Fernando sneaks into Elena and Anaïs’s room. The older sister has told the younger to pretend to sleep. This first sex scene, from seduction to morning after, is an astounding twenty-five minutes in length. The two lovers lay in a single bed – the young girl in a sheer nightgown while the older boy is fully dressed and they first swap stories of sex and romance. The pillow talk soon escalates into a battle of wills when Fernando’s unsurprising arousal must be quenched. Anaïs had warned her sister of Fernando’s ruse, his apparent fondness a facade for sexual desire. Following a macho proclamation – Fernando enjoys humiliating older women who thought they were the seducers – we get a quick cut from the entangled characters to Anaïs, unfortunately bedded just on the other side of the room in their family’s vacation home. Linda Williams notes the power and intensity of this cut: the close-up of Anaïs in this first instance, leering at first then peeping through her fingers, “punctuates [Fernando’s] bad faith, for [Anaïs] perceives the violation [of Elena] despite its apparent lack of violence” (Screening Sex 280-281). The camera returns to frame the lovers and picks up the seduction again. Elena is alone stretched out on the bed, sex exposed, and nightgown covering half her face. Fernando appears from the left of the frame, now with pants removed and a very large erection, and the camera slowly tracks to a close-up. Through many minutes of threats and degradation – this theme of female shame cutting across almost all of Breillat’s films – Fernando coerces Elena into anal sex because vaginal is too sacred for her; the “back way” “doesn’t count” yet would be a “demonstration” of her love. 3 There is another cut to the younger sister’s gaze upon penetration, anxiously flapping her forearm against her face then looking askance, as her sibling is raped. 4 When Fernando finishes with Elena, he casually mentions he might like to marry her.

The morning after Fernando tries to push Elena’s head down to perform oral sex on him. She says she is uncomfortable because her sister is on the other side of the room. Anaïs awakes; the sisters have a heated exchange. Elena walks Fernando to the gate of their house, willingly performs oral sex, and he stops the act partway out of fear of being caught and subsequently jailed for sex with a minor.

Elena’s mother (Arsinee Khanjian) purchases her a red dress later on that day, a dress which is short and tight against Elena’s skin. This comes after Elena had tried a more proper green dress which Anaïs then decided upon as the outfit for herself. The two sisters argue and this argument, collected with the scene of Elena and Fernando on the beach which follows the dress purchase – the young lovers leaving the sad and lonely Anaïs squatting naked on the shore – is the conflict necessary for the sisters to rekindle their affections for one another before Fernando, later that night, will sneak into their vacation home again and Elena will make a gift of her virginity, or better, will exchange it for a promise.

Without the endless minutes of badgering and coercion, the camera is again on the right side of Elena’s bed and she is fully nude. Kneeling between her legs we see Fernando rolling on a condom. Just like the first sex scene the camera slowly tracks in to the lovers, medium close-up, and Elena’s new engagement ring screams for our attention. “I’m scared,” Elena whispers. “Be gentle.” Fernando replies, “No. One hard push is best, then it’s over.” He penetrates. Cut to Anaïs, turned away from the event, sobbing and wiping tears from her eyes. At the far side of the room, slightly out of focus, we see the calves and feet of Fernando and Elena; we hear the former’s groans of pleasure and the latter’s pained moans. We stay with Anaïs until Fernando lets out that final grunt of satisfaction. Her crying withers.

Horror and the Horrible

I must leap into the finale of the film at the same pace it arrives for viewers. The theoretical underpinnings of this section – Tanya Modleski’s classical account of horror, Lisa Coulthard on haptic cinema, and Eugenie Brinkema’s definition of the horrible – should follow at the same frantic speed. The classical definition of horror and a new definition of it created by recent filmmakers collide in Breillat’s shocking conclusion to Fat Girl.

Fernando’s mother (Laura Betti) appears at the family’s vacation home to reclaim the engagement ring her son had given to Elena. It was not an engagement ring after all, but one of the mother’s accessories. Elena and Anaïs’s mother abruptly and furiously ends their vacation. She shoves the girls into their car and begins the long drive home. Each character is in frame for the ensuing dialogues, making pronounced the effect that the entire event has on each family member. The mother may want Elena to visit a doctor, see if her hymen is still intact, and the (absent) father may want a report published in the paper, a statement regarding an adult’s fornication with his daughter. 5

On the highway, large trucks and 18-wheelers swerve around the mother’s Mercedes. Multiple perspectives, from the trucks, truck drivers, the mother, the side-view mirror, of the car itself, almost force the spectator to expect an accident. The mother gasses, brakes, smokes, and argues with her daughters – Elena wishes for her own death, Anaïs desires to live, they both explain. The mother takes two breaks, one for Anaïs to vomit, and another at a gas station to fuel up and get a quick bite. The tension increases as day passes into night. The driving goes on and on. The girls cry and whimper, the mother blasts music to keep herself company, and Anaïs eats junk food. Carol Munter, from her personal experience as a “fat” individual and psychotherapist, could perhaps be speaking of Anaïs here when she writes, “Every time a woman reaches for food when she has no physiological need to do so . . . She is attempting to deal with some bit of external or internal reality which has made her uncomfortable: a sexual longing or fantasy, a feeling of envy or rejection, the impulse to violate a sexual taboo . . .” (239, italics mine). Eugenie Brinkema notes that the driving scene lasts for more than 10 minutes, writing: “We experience another time in this scene, the time of pre-trauma, the time of anticipation” (“Celluloid is Sticky” 158). The mother eventually needs sleep. She parks the car at a rest stop and quickly falls into a deep slumber. Elena, turning around in her front seat, and Anaïs, leaning forward from the back, share a heart-warming exchange in which the latter tries to comfort the former. Fernando has already forgotten you, she says. Go to sleep . . . Lock your door. Elena sleeps and Anaïs stuffs her mouth with sugary treats.

Shot from Anaïs’s perspective, a man suddenly smashes the windshield and scrambles atop the hood. His axe bashes Elena’s skull, instantly killing her. He and Anaïs then have a long stare at one another, completely outside time, “which is not to say that it occurs out of time – what on earth would that mean? – but that the time of the diegesis is compressed and compressible in relation to our time” (Brinkema, “Celluloid is Sticky” 159). The mother should have awoken, screamed, hollered, but she does not as the murderer and Anaïs hold each other’s gaze. Anaïs urinates. 6 The murderer finally strangles the mother and Anaïs escapes through the passenger door. The two exchange another set of intense looks, and Anaïs seems to be saying with her eyes that nothing this psycho can do is against her will. 7 A quick cut takes the young girl and the murderer to a nearby shadowy wooded area, not unlike the location of the film’s opening sequence. The man tackles Anaïs, rips her panties off, and shoves them in her mouth like the junk she had been eating all day. He rapes her amidst the trees and dirt. It is brief; she does not cry and there is very little struggle.

The morning after police officers and a forensic team are on the scene. An officer brings Anaïs out from the shrubs and trees. “She says he took her in the woods, but he didn’t rape her,” he tells another officer. Anaïs replies, “If you don’t want to believe me, then don’t.” Freeze-frame on her face followed by the soft and pleasant acoustic guitar of Luigi Balducci’s “Vene Carnivale” and the end credits. 8

The spectators’ sensations experienced during the dénouement of the film, their shock and fear, is a product of Breillat’s appropriation of horror and its amalgamation into the genres of teen melodrama and pornography. Yet the exact experience or sensation received from the last chapter of the film is difficult to define and locate in the film because it comes as a result of the entire feature: its images, sounds, and narrative. Furthermore, the difficulty in pinpointing an exact moment of horror, besides the killing, of course, is due to the film as a whole containing very little horror (as genre) to accurately identify, or better, the horror is not solely in the most striking and horrific scene at the finale.

Tanya Modleski’s essay “The Terror of Pleasure: The Contemporary Horror Film and Postmodern Theory” (1986) provides a precise definition of the horror genre. Modleski identifies the postmodern war against narrative and cinematic pleasure, tracing this line of thought through the Frankfurt School, Roland Barthes, Christian Metz, Jean-François Lyotard, and Julia Kristeva (617-622). Each of these theorists, in their own way, posits narrative pleasure as a key component of “the supreme ideological construct – the ‘bourgeois ego’” (Modleski 621). The argument is simply that in narcissistically identifying with narrative and character, and taking pleasure from it, the values are supplied by the bourgeois class and appropriated by mass culture, thus keeping the ruling-class and the current system in power. While Modleski sets out to disprove this claim via the horror genre, her text is also significant for its fundamental descriptions of the common traits of the genre. Breillat, although clearly working with fear and terror in that penultimate sequence, does not fall in line with the three arguments Modleski unveils for the genre’s key components.

The first is the denial of closure (Modleski 622). Horror films are often open-ended, defying audiences’ expectations for a neat and tidy finish, and opening the possibility for endless sequels. For Modleski this is the opposite of the closure found in the “novelistic” or “family romance” cinema Stephen Heath classifies, which he argues aids in identification with characters and construction of a particular kind of subject (Heath 125-128, 157-158). Second, horror films “tend to dispense with or drastically minimize the plot and character development that is thought to be essential to the construction of the novelistic” (Modleski 622). Characters are “interchangeable,” so we have no climax (Modleski 623); the focus is instead on the chase, the killings, and possible salvation for those who have crossed paths with the monster/psycho/murderer. Third, since characters are interchangeable and lack all personality or creative potential, they are nearly impossible to identify with. Horror films are thoroughly anti-narcissistic, Modleski concludes; audiences delight in the slashings and bashings and in having their “expectations of closure frustrated” (624).

Despite the first observation Modleski makes, that horror is open-ended, and that open-endedness is an expectation when we see a horror film or when horror seems to be unfolding in the narrative. Breillat, on the other hand, will close the book on Anaïs’s initiation into sexuality. While the narrative might not be closed in the conventional sense of an ending – a happy or at worst an indifferent resolution – Fat Girl concludes with the most brutal of events, namely murder and rape. The pleasures of terror in the finale of a horror feature become the displeasure of the closure of Elena and Anaïs’s story. Breillat does retain the minimal plot, writing, as André Bazin suggests, a simple story without touching the level of documentary. But this minimal plot does not, like the horror feature, refuse to build to a climax. Fat Girl progresses despite the characters’ stagnation, marked by the introductory conversation between Elena and Anaïs in which the two set out their philosophy of love – love required for sex for the older sister, love as bad faith for the younger – followed by the narrative exploding these philosophies to an intense and climactic degree.

Even though the characters are caricatures, it is also untrue that identification becomes impossible for spectators. Martin Barker’s audience research (113, 114) strongly reveals that the affect for some viewers was the characters’ link to their own lives, whether Elena’s gullibility or Fernando’s macho posturing and coercion for sexual pleasure. Better, I do not see Elena and Fernando as characters to the world Breillat provides, but what Stanley Cavell named types, through which we see individualities (The World Viewed 33-37, 174-179). In Fat Girl, we see the bourgeois teen longing for love and the bourgeois college student searching for sex, and, in them, individuals who are, to a greater or lesser degree, like ourselves. What Barker’s research shows is that spectators’ post-film experiences do not just re-collect the events which took place in the feature but re-collect themselves in similar happenings in their own past – their bodies, in some sense, are there too in the film. 9 The male identification Barker observed is also present despite Breillat’s “majority of… male characters seem[ing] to be unsympathetic at best, uncaring, cruel, violent — even murderous — at worst” (Russell-Watts 72). The director succinctly sums up the role of men in her oeuvre:

There is no masculine psychology in my cinema. They contain only what women feel and desire. Therefore, men must not try to recognize themselves in my male characters. However, the films can help them acquire a better understanding of women, and knowledge of the other is a higher goal. (ibid., qtd. in Chollet, trans. Russell-Watts) 10

Yet, in Fernando’s seduction, men find the truth of their real life relations with women, quite unlike, for example, the rape of Jennifer in I Spit on Your Grave (Meir Zarchi, 1978). In this film, the men are so vile and depraved that male viewers cannot identify themselves with the rapists and cannot therefore gain any pleasure from the images of (forced) sex (Fulfs 256-258). Fernando, on the other hand, is all too kind, all too persuasive, and all too familiar. Thus Breillat’s own aim is overtaken by real spectators in this instance. A generic horror film, according to Modleski, should not contain this same element of identification.

We see how much the French director deviates from Modleski’s theory of horror. Breillat is not so much a director of horror than she is perhaps a director of the horrible. Eugenie Brinkema develops this distinction in an essay on Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (1997). 11 The horrible is engaged not as a direct opposition to horror, whose Latin horrere is defined by a bristling, a standing up of the hairs on the nape of one’s neck in those scenes of anticipation and excitement (Brinkema, “Not to scream before or about” 156; Williams, “Film Bodies” 606). As Brinkema explains, the horrible in Haneke is the failure of horror to appear as such. In much of Haneke’s work, from The Seventh Continent (Die Siebente Kontinent, 1989) to Benny’s Video (1992) to The White Ribbon (Das Weisse Band, 2009), violence often appears off-screen or out of frame; we get the sounds, but not the image, making the horrible appear in our imaginations rather than on the nape of necks. 12 For Brinkema, this is precisely the anxiety, the tension, and the encounter of the Lacanian Real within Haneke’s film itself. For the purposes of this discussion, the Real is defined and limited to an eruption or interruption in the Symbolic, which is to say genre expectations, “as frustrated representation(s)” (Brinkema, “Not to scream before or about” 155) There she spends much more time than I do here developing Jacques Lacan’s affect of anxiety though Sigmund Freud’s notion of the uncanny. 13 According to Lorenzo Chiesa, we must not locate the Real as objectivity, a thing without the mediation of a human subjectivity, or a primordial undifferentiated matter (126-130). It is instead the psychic effects not reducible to everyday reality, part of the unconscious processes which allow the Symbolic and Imaginary to function. Chiesa calls this the Real-of-the-Symbolic, the Real within the Symbolic, and beyond the knowledge of the Symbolic. When the spectator is cut from the (Symbolic) representations of genre, the Real is that thing that is missing from an otherwise ordered and habituated film experience, and is therefore a lack (cf. Chiesa 131).

In Haneke’s original version of Funny Games, for instance, something has gone missing from our viewing experience, i.e., the cinematic image itself, and the image we expect to be horrified by disintegrates into sounds: groans of pain, screams, and silences. Coulthard quotes Haneke on aurality, linking the sounds of his films to a haptic experience for spectators, “[a]sserting that ‘the ear is fundamentally more sensitive than the eye’ and that it ‘provides a more direct path to the imagination and the heart of human beings.’” With his filmic silences and lack of non-diegetic music “Haneke has argued for the primacy of hearing in ensuring cinema’s affective and intellectual impact”(“Haptic Aurality” 19). 14 It is the auditory element of Haneke’s films which renders a phenomenological and sensorial experience possible, pulling the spectator out of the more cognitive or psychoanalytic based spectatorship of “narrative logic” or “character identification” (Coulthard, “Haptic Aurality” 18). When psychoanalytic approaches are limited to issues of identification, this form of theorizing is insufficient to account for the phenomenological experience; if, on the other hand, the eruption of the Real into the symbolic is experienced sensually (or sensorially?), for my purposes here when viewing a film, then I have found a way to retain the value of psychoanalytic theory insofar as it can be integrated into recent developments and research on spectatorship as an engagement with the senses. To put Chiesa’s point on the Real differently, a haptic hearing, according to Laura U. Marks, can be defined in that moment whereby sounds are “undifferentiated,” not as matter but as sounds for a subject prior to his or her choice to turn attention (or register psychically) to one in particular (182-183). In that instant of equalized sound, that which registers with the senses from the object itself (in the case of films, the celluloid), moves out toward the spectator to “quite literally” move their body, for Coulthard, in sometimes “thought provoking, contemplative and ethically implicated ways” (“Haptic Aurality” 18). Breillat accomplishes this with Fat Girl. Fernando’s grunting, as I related in the synopsis above, is both pornographic and horrible. In the silence of Elena and Anaïs’s room, without the aid of non-diegetic music, we become another witness to the indignities Elena (and other young girls) come to face, because sound carries with it, like an image, a duty and responsibility to address what is heard (Coulthard, “Haptic Aurality” 26-28).

If the horrible is the sounds and anxiety of the Real encroaching on our habitual viewing experience, a defiance of our cinematic, narrative, and genre expectations, what better a film to accomplish this than Breillat’s Fat Girl? In Breillat’s film we do not see much of the mental and physical rape, like we do, for example, in Jonathan Kaplan’s The Accused (1988), Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days (1995), and other such spectacular features. With Elena, the sexual assaults happen in Anaïs’s presence and it is through her we must position ourselves. We hear the sounds of Elena’s rape nevertheless, and again, Breillat forces us to imagine the horrible taking place in front of Anaïs in the first instance and behind her back in the second. Breillat’s Perfect Love (Parfait Amour, 1996) achieves the same with its horrible images. At the beginning of the feature, a police inspector commands a murderer to re-enact his deed. His brutal actions, comic in this instance, force us to imagine the killing. When we reach the last chapter of the narrative, Breillat does not show us the stabbing, but rather brings us to a close-up of the young man as he ends his lover’s life. Thus the final sequence of Fat Girl (and in Perfect Love as well), is not Breillat’s only recourse to the horrible, although it is perhaps the most evident and affective – the film, as a whole, is also ripe with it. The horrific image, graphically detailed, full of gore, producing disgust, has been replaced by the horrible of the imagination. Because we are forced to imagine something horrible, this is where I locate the spectator’s sensation(s) in viewing the film. Spectatorship is a collecting of particular images and sounds, onscreen and imagined, followed by their re-collecting and evaluating.

Thus a horrible cinema, I can conclude here with Brinkema, “locates itself elsewhere than in the image” (‘Not to scream before or about’ 151). We can see the analogy here of the Lacanian Real and how a haptic cinema operates as the replacement for the missing Symbolic representation of expected narrative and image. When the psychic reality falters cinema offers the sensation of image and sound to produce effects in the spectator’s body, namely shock. This is the import of the tactile film experience when psychoanalytic analyses refer to only the Imaginary order. 15

For Brinkema, the horrible is not a genre, but a strange relation, or, as I have been expounding here, a kind of non-genre or experience of genre mixing, mingling, and confounding expectation rooted in the spectator’s mode of perception. Haneke is seeking truth in his films, about violence, most explicitly. If he and. by proximity, Breillat, are classified by pre-established generic categories, the truth of the image and narrative disappears. An active participation on the part of the spectator recedes as well. “The problem with genre, for [Haneke], resides in a problem with the cynical marketing of expectations as a palliative for an unthinking, uncritical audience” (Brinkema, ‘Not to scream before or about’). With Breillat’s reluctance to produce genre-films, and in an effort to move beyond generic categories, she challenges our assumptions about genre firstly, as I have related in this essay, and secondly, challenges spectators to develop the courage to see the truth of sexuality and sexual relations. For myself, critics, theorists, and audiences, the message or meaning of a New Extreme feature is consistently lost on us as the sex and violence may be too much to handle in terms of either the trauma induced or the incomprehensibility for the typically Bazinian (art cinema) spectators who are resistant to cinematic sex and death. The theoretical aims of a picture then are occasionally misplaced but this is the risk the director must take in order to get the critical reception desired. Breillat cannot be assimilated into generic expectation; her films demand the careful attention of a theoretical text.

Fat Girl is thus defiant to genre on three counts, two of which I mentioned in passing, and the latter has been the object of study: melodrama, pornography, and horror. I argue that the implacable sensation – shock, fear, terror, pathos – is due in part to a particular diegetic event or moment but also to the structure of narrative and plot, the shots and length of the scenes, the sounds and bodies on display, each contributing to confounding the expectations of viewers. There is also the shock of the entire feature when we cognitively put together the pieces of the narrative. And, “Like in all fine horror,” Martine Beugnet writes , “shock is the gateway between the plane of sensation and that of discourse” (Cinema and Sensation 45). The discourse and conversation that emerges from the film circles around the utterly frightening position young girls have been put in, “that a quick rape is actually preferable to a long seduction, and that the raped sister exercises more control over her fate than the seduced one” (Williams, Screening Sex 283). The meaning of Anaïs’s rape is not “a potentially liberating experience,” as critic Ginette Vincendeau suggests (6); nor is Breillat’s aim to show a coming of age story, highlighting the significant event that allows Anaïs to emerge from her “shell,” as described by actress Reboux (“One Soul with Two Bodies” 14). Much of the difficulty in writing about New Extremism is trying to decode the director’s social/political critique. Fat Girl contains a most devastating critique because of its testimonial quality, its truth about sexual relations, and its ability to provide an existential situatedness without resorting to the documentary genre. This is, although at the extreme, the truth of adolescent and teenage sexuality for Breillat. Men are seducers and rapists – the only freedom allowed young girls is in the ability to pick which act of deflowering seems the less damaging. Breillat offers no solution to the problem of sexual difference under patriarchy, merely showcasing it for our cinematic displeasure, which is to say the viewing of this film should produce negative emotions in the viewers. 16 The positive, the potential for social and ethical change, hopefully results from this displeasure.


Anderson, Jeffrey M. Plump Chump. Combustible Celluloid. . N/d. Accessed June 18, 2013

Barker, Jennifer. The Tactile Eye: Touch and the Cinematic Experience. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 2009.

Barker. Martin. “Watching Rape, Enjoying Watching Rape …: How Does a Study of Audience Cha(lle)nge Mainstream Film Studies Approaches?” The New Extremism in Cinema: From France to Europe. Ed. Tanya C. Horeck and Tina Kendall. Edinburgh Scholarship Online, 2012.

Beugnet, Martine. Cinema and Sensation: French Film and the Art of Transgression. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2007.

—-. “Blind Spot.” Screen 48:2 (Summer 2007): 227:231.

Breillat, Catherine, dir. Fat Girl. Blu-ray. Criterion Collection, 2011.

—-. “One Soul with Two Bodies: An Interview with Catherine Breillat.” Fat Girl. Blu-ray booklet, 2011.

—-. “Director Interview.” Brief Crossing. DVD. Wellspring Media, Inc., 2004.

Brinkema, Eugenie. “Celluloid is Sticky: Sex, Death, Materiality, Metaphysics (in Some Films by Catherine Breillat).” Women: A Cultural Review 17:2 (2006): 147-170.

—-. “‘Not to scream before or about, but to scream at death’: Haneke’s Horrible Funny Games.” Caligari’s Heirs: The German Cinema of Fear After 1945. Scarecrow Press, 2006.

—-. “How to do Things with Violences.” A Companion to Michael Haneke. Ed. Roy Grundman. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.

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—-. Cavell on Film. Ed. William Rothman. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2005.

Chiesa, Lorenzo. Subjectivity and Otherness: A Philosophical Reading of Lacan. Cambridge and London: The MIT Press, 2007.

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—-. “Haptic Aurality: Listening to the Films of Michael Haneke.” Film-Philosophy 16:1 (2012): 16-29.

Frey, Mattias. “Tuning Out, Turning In, and Walking Off: The Film Spectator in Pain.” Ethics and Images of Pain. Ed. Asbjørn Grønstad and Henrik Gustafsson. New York and London: Routledge, 2012.

Fulfs, Patricia Ann. The Horror of Feminism: Understanding the Second Wave through the Reception of Controversial Films. Ph.D. Diss. The University of Texas at Austin, 2010.

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Hilderbrand, Lucas. “Fat Girl (2001).” Pop Matters. n/d. Accessed June 18, 2013.

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Millet, Kate. “Beyond Politics? Children and Sexuality.” Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality. Ed. Carole S. Vance. Boston and London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984.

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Munter, Carol. “Fat and the Fantasy of Perfection.” Pleasure and Danger.

Russell-Watts, Lynsey. “Marginalized Males? Men, Masculinity and Catherine Breillat.” Journal for Cultural Research. 14:1 (January 2010): 71-84.

Vincendeau, Ginette. “Sisters, Sex, and Sitcom.” Fat Girl. Blu-ray booklet.

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—-. “Contested Interactions: Watching Catherine Breillat’s Scenes of Sexual Violence.” Journal for Cultural Research. 14:1 (January 2010): 27-41.

—-. “Unseen/Obscene: The (Non-)Framing of the Sexual Act in Michael Haneke’s La Pianiste.” New Austrian Film. Ed. Robert Von Dassanowsky and Olivier C. Speck. New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2011.

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—-. Screening Sex. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2008.


  1. The key text on haptic visuality in film studies is Marks (2000).
  2. Cf. Cavell (Cavell on Film 9) for a brief discussion on spectatorship as a process of organizing images which matter for the individual viewer.
  3. Fernando argues from every angle: sex is not a big deal, all the girls do it, if she does not have sex he will find it elsewhere, he is aroused and should not have to get himself off into the trash-bin, he loves her, and as mentioned, the back way does not count. On children and sexuality author and artist Kate Millet observes, “There is a predatory energy even in courting, when what is courted is youth – the helplessness, the vulnerability, the innocence, the ignorance. The prey can be tripped, caught, seduced, tricked, talking into it, and beguiled, like a pocket picked by a thief. There is an exercise of power linked with what used to be called gallantry” (221).
  4. There is no question about the rape, despite (male) critics’ attempts to suggest the ambiguity, for instance Lucas Hilderbrand , who writes, “[Fernando] essentially rapes Elena” (“Fat Girl (2001)”), and Jeffrey M. Anderson who suggests it is “basically a rape scene” (“Plump Chump”).
  5. Elena’s parents adopt Kate Millet’s observation from a few decades ago : “Shame, invented by adults and laid upon children, is still pervasive and continues to color adolescence, particularly that of female children. Their lives are a continual apology for something that they probably haven’t done and do not really understand. But they might…. And the possibility of sexual activity is what adults guard against relentlessly” (219-220).
  6. Cf. Brinkema (“Celluloid is Sticky” 159): “you are not wrong to think that the clear fluid on her thighs reminds you of another.”
  7. Cf. Williams (Screening Sex 282), who makes a similar point.
  8. A second ending was shot and it does not have the same intensity. Anaïs is being attended to by a doctor in his office; he has just examined her and he asks why she did not tell the police about the rape. She delivers the same line as in the final cut.
  9. Cf. Cavell (Cavell on Film 251-253) on collecting, notions of selfhood, and identity.
  10. See the rest of Russell-Watts’s essay for a critique of Breillat’s “marginalized males,” their processes of sexuation, and how the divergent male leads in Romance are ultimately productive for rethinking one-dimensional accounts of masculinity.
  11. I suspect someone, in the near future, will make thorough and strong connections between Haneke’s work and Breillat’s. Many scholars of New Extreme cinema write on both directors and so appropriating Brinkema’s argument about Haneke the horrible seems appropriate. On Michael Haneke see Beugnet (“Blind Spot”), Brinkema (“Not to scream before or about, but to scream at death,” “How to do things”), Coulthard (“Interrogating the Obscene,” “Haptic Aurality”), Wheatley (Michael Haneke’s Cinema, “Unseen/Obscene”); and these same film theorists on Breillat, see Beugnet (Cinema and Sensation), Brinkema (“Celluloid is Sticky”), Coulthard (“Desublimating Desire”), Wheatley (“Contested Interactions”).
  12. For an extended analysis of this, see Coulthard (“Interrogating the Obscene”).
  13. Cf. Brinkema (“Not to scream before or about” 155-156).
  14. Cf. Laplanche & Pontalis (“Fantasy and the Origins of Sexuality”). Consider the role of sound from a psychoanalytic perspective as well: a sound, if Coulthard and Haneke are correct, can equally serve as that signifier, that noise of a childhood trauma rekindled, Freud discovered, in an example of a woman being photographed who heard the ‘noise’ of the camera and Freud took to be the sound of the primal scene awakening the child.
  15. Cf. Barker (The Tactile Eye) on the tactile film experience.
  16. Cf. Wheatley (Michael Haneke’s Cinema 85-88) for a quick overview of cinematic displeasure and the films of Haneke; Frey (“Turning Out”) and Lübecker (“Lars von Trier’s Dogville”) for discussions of New Extremism and spectatorial displeasure.

Seeing Horror, Imagining the Horrible

Troy Michael Bordun is a part-time contract instructor at Concordia University and the University of Northern British Columbia. Bordun’s work on contemporary cinema includes the monograph Genre Trouble and Extreme Cinema (Palgrave, 2017), and articles and chapters in Cinephile, Mise-en-scène, Studies in European Cinema, and Screening Scarlett Johansson (Palgrave, 2020), among others. He is presently working on a book about philosophy and superhero comics and continues to research contemporary genre films.

Volume 19, Issue 9 / September 2015 Essays